Monday, December 5, 2011

(No.180) J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood & Creepy Karpis

Recently to be found in movie theatres has been "J. Edgar", a biographical drama directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood with Leonardo DiCaprio as J.Edgar Hoover. The film has received mixed reviews, perhaps to be expected when it is about a man whose self-created image as the leading American "G-man" of the last century began to crumble soon after his death at age 77 in 1972, still FBI director thanks to his secret files he used to blackmail American presidents and other politicians to keep him in office.

Whenever Hoover comes to my attention I think of an incident involving Hoover and Alvin Karpis (dubbed "Creepy Karpis" by cops and the media in the 1930s), an anecdote that Hoover ensured did not surface until many years after the incident occurred.

Karpis, who was actually a Canadian born in Montreal, became a famous American gangster in the 1930s, especially after he was elevated by the FBI to the status of "Public Enemy No.1" following the death of John Dillinger.

He was a bank and train robber who was said by the government to have killed at least 14 people. This was never proven although he was tried and convicted in Minnesota for a kidnapping for which he was given a life sentence and ended up in Alcatraz. He was captured in New Orleans by a squad of two dozen or so FBI agents at about 5 p.m. on a May 1936 afternoon. Hoover told the media that he had personally reached into Karpis' car, grabbed him and then disarmed him.

After Karpis was finally released from prison in Dec. of 1968 and then deported to Canada he related what had really happened that afternoon in 1936.

Karpis had been captured by the FBI agents and held standing beside his car. He looked over his shoulder towards a nearby street corner and saw Hoover peeking around a corner. An FBI agent called to him "Come on out boss, we got him" at which point Karpis relates that Hoover and his longtime second in command Clyde Tolson, "the gold dust twins" as Karpis referred to them in a Canadian interview (one I well remember seeing at the time), came down the street to where Karpis was being held prisoner.

Karpis ended up settling in Malaga Spain in 1973 and died there in 1979 under suspicious circumstances. He had lived modestly on the money he made from collaborating on a couple of books including his autobiography Public Enemy Number One published in 1971. He wrote it following his deportation to Canada. His second book published after his death, On The Rock (1980), was about his time in Alcatraz.

I read both these books (I think one or both have been reissued) and recommend them as no nonsense and interesting counterbalances both to Hoover's self-mythologizing and to any number of Hollywood myths involving people Karpis knew or worked with such as Ma Barker (a harmless woman shot to pieces by the FBI in 1935 and subsequently elevated to mythical status) and the 'Birdman of Alcatraz', Robert Stroud (a vicious head case).

Karpis was refused the parole he would likely have received sooner had it not been for Hoover's opposition (no mystery as to why). Karpis was incarcerated for 33 years (1933-69) and therefore was unable to say anything to the press about the phoniness of Hoover's personal crime-busting reputation.

After Karpis had been returned to Canada it was a different circumstance. Today one can read his books and also watch on YouTube excerpts from interviews done with him including his description of his capture in 1936 and Hoover's peek-a-boo part in it.

by Alastair Rickard




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